SLAVE TO NO ONE
Aged 69 (probably), Grace Jones still loves to perform naked, requires Cristal champagne and oysters before she’ll go on stage and proudly proclaims herself a ‘high-flying bitch’. Jessamy Calkin gets a behind-thescenes glimpse of a diva on a roll.
At the Wilderness festival in Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire, a large box of oysters is being ferried to the Portakabin that serves as Grace Jones’ dressing room. Six bottles of Cristal are already lined up on ice in there, along with a few bottles of very expensive white wine and some good vintage red. This is Jones’ standard rider.
There is a flurry of activity; her band are there (including her son, Paulo), along with her friend, actor Sarah Douglas, her brother Chris, her manager Brendan, her wardrobe head and two assistants juggling Philip Treacy hats, plus Marjorie Grant, who manages her business affairs. And Sophie Fiennes, who has made a film about her.
Jones oozes out of her trailer and leers at us all. She is wearing — well, nothing, really.
Nothing substantial. A lot of white war paint (she looks like one of Don McCullin’s tribal photographs), a corset that covers a bit of her midriff, a veil and a golden skull mask, and some fairly ridiculous shoes, one of which gets stuck as she’s climbing up the wooden steps to the stage.
Even in this outfit she has an astonishing amount of elegance and gravitas. She takes one look at the stage and comes back down again. “I’m not going on! There’s no wine!” She stomps down the stairs. “Brendan?” she shouts to her manager. “Are you nervous?” She cackles — she has a fabulous laugh — and everyone relaxes.
She does perform, of course. Boy, does she perform. All her hits — La Vie en Rose, Warm
Leatherette, Love Is the Drug — with a different elaborate costume for each song — giant net skirt, bustles, wigs, a breathtaking variety of hats (“It’s a church thing!”) — changing at the back of the stage, chatting to the audience all the while through her microphone.
There’s a Valkyrie helmet and long, white wig, in which she is paraded through the crowd on the shoulders of an obliging security man, and for My Jamaican Guy she comes on in a winning trilby and dildo combination, a black shawl barely covering her breasts, and dances on a podium overlooking the stage.
A muscular acrobat called Nico Modestine enhances things with a spectacular display of pole dancing. The famous hoop comes out for
Slave to the Rhythm and Jones introduces her band while doing a long, slow hula. It’s almost shamanic. The band are grinning and the audience crackles with excitement.
“I’m having the best party!” whoops Jones. “Damn it! I FEEL that love.”
Jones is 69. Or thereabouts. She loves all the confusion around her age and is hazy on these things but the general consensus is that she was born in 1948. She looks incredible. Her body is still athletic and slim and powerful-looking. Her face is unlined — wider, but not fatter, than in her youth.
Her fear of needles has exempted her from having any plastic surgery (and heroin addiction, possibly). It is genetic, she says. Her mother (who died in October, at the age of 88) had “skin like a baby’s butt”.
“I’m in time,” says Jones. “I don’t think about getting older. People look older because they’re so busy thinking about it.” She has not slowed down. “I just take my time.”
Nor does she seem like a person who has mellowed with age. “Of course I’m mellow! I’m not beating people up like I used to. I’ve just figured out that the consequences are not worth it. Sure, I’d like to box a few people around when they get in my face, but I’ve got wiser now. I use intelligence more and di-plo-macy ...” she picks at the word. “I was not a diplomat, but now I have more patience.”
Here she is possibly referring to the famous Russell Harty incident of 1981, when the chatshow host first patronised her, and then turned his back on her during his television show. She slapped him and hit him repeatedly. It became a defining moment in both their careers.
THE CONNECTION between Sophie Fiennes and Grace Jones was forged during a dinner at L’Etoile restaurant in London, in the spring of 2002. Fiennes had just screened her new film, a documentary called Hoover Street Revival, about Bishop Noel Jones, Grace’s brother, and his church community in South Central LA. When the screening finished, Jones — whom Fiennes had never met — was on her feet, whooping and clapping.
“I love the smell of your film,” she called across the screening room in her distinctive throaty drawl.
Later, she plied Fiennes with questions about filming Noel’s world. Her own experiences growing up with the church had been bitter. “Honey,” she said to Fiennes. “I am churchburnt! To a cinder. To a crrrrissppp!”
“It was classic Grace,” says Fiennes, “She’s brilliant with language — when she’s doing vocals in the studio, it’s a bit like Noel’s preaching. Language is like clay to her; she plays with it.”
Fiennes — a confirmed atheist — told Jones about an experience she’d had while filming in Noel’s church. It was Mother’s Day. Fiennes’ mother Jini (the artist and novelist Jennifer Lash) had died of cancer several years earlier, leaving behind a husband and seven children, when Fiennes was 26.
Bishop Noel was preaching about Mother’s Day “and I suddenly felt the spirit of my mother”, says Fiennes. “I was feeling her loss, the loss of contact with her children, the loss of motherhood, I felt like she came into my body and I experienced her grief. It was as if she was inside me, animating me. And I suddenly had this outburst of crying and sobbing, and someone asked, ‘Are you okay?’ And I said, ‘I’m fine, I’m crying my mother’s tears. These are my mother’s tears, they’re not mine.’”
Fiennes told Jones her story, and Jones exclaimed, “Oh my God, I love that!” And she wrote a song called I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears) which is on the Hurricane album. “We connected through that potential in church for these really quite wild things to happen.”
“The first time we met, it was like we were sisters in another life,” Jones tells me. “It was like two gypsies really. I was very comfortable with her.”
SHE ALSO liked the fact that Fiennes, too, came from a big family (her five brothers include the actors Ralph and Joseph). They decided to work on a film together, but it was uncertain what that would be. Jones loves to collaborate and Fiennes made a decision to freewheel — she thought, I’ll just shoot and shoot until I’ve got enough material.
I don’t think about getting older. People look older because they’re so busy thinking about it. I just take my time. Grace Jones
Grace Jones photographed for the cover of her Nightclubbing album, 1981.
Jones with Dolph Lundgren at Kamikaze Club in New York City, in 1983.